And about twenty years later, the video, by then a bit of a joke, became a touchpoint of Internet culture. The URL of the video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ, doesn’t tell the would-be clicker what the video is about; the only way to find out is to click. This is true for any YouTube video, and some took advantage of the obfuscation. In 2007, members of a web forum known as 4chan (and if you don’t know what that is, don’t Google it) were the first to do so in this case. They began to drop links to the YouTube video above in posts, claiming that it went to other things, such as a trailer for video game Grand Theft Auto IV. Others would click the link, be met by the auto-playing video and music, and close the window while groaning — they fell for the ruse, again. Quickly, the trick took the Internet by storm. “Rickrolling,” it was called: the “Rick” part comes from Astley’s first name, and, according to Wikipedia, the “rolling” part from a predecessor joke (“duckrolling”) where the user would be unsuspectingly directed to a picture of a duck on wheels.
But Rickrolling predates 4chan. It predates YouTube, even. Just ask former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
On December 20, 1989, the United States invaded Panama. One of the objectives was to depose Noriega, who facilitated drug trafficking and money laundering through Panama’s borders. Noriega went to the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Panama City, hoping to receive asylum, and in any event, the U.S. was unlikely at best to invade the Vatican’s foothold in the area. But the American forces weren’t simply going to sit idly by as Noriega took cover. Instead, they tried some psychological warfare. Noriega had a professed hatred for rock music, so the Navy SEALs assigned to extract the dictator started blasting such music in the area. (The military would later deny that this was the reason for the noise, instead claiming that the noise was there to drown out eavesdropping devices.) After ten days, Noriega exited the mission and surrendered.
Noriega was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering by the United States in 1992, and spent the next fifteen years in American prisons. He spent three more years in custody after that, awaiting extradition to France. In 2010, he was extradited to France. And that day, NPR retold the story of his crimes and capture. One of the songs the military played during the capture, of course, was “Never Going to Give You Up.” The Navy SEALs Rickrolled Noriega out of the Vatican, nearly twenty years before Rickrolling was a thing.
Bonus fact: On July 27, 2011, the White House’s official Twitter account attempted to Rickroll some guy.
From the Archives: Mind the Gap: Why you can’t drive from Panama to Colombia.
Related: “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a $1.29 mp3.